A Man of Dick Cheney's Caliber Long after Harry Whittington's wounds heal, the political damage to Vice President Dick Cheney, the man who accidentally shot him, will linger, says Political Editor Ken Rudin.
NPR logo A Man of Dick Cheney's Caliber

A Man of Dick Cheney's Caliber

The matriarch of the Texas ranch where the shooting took place, Armstrong was a Republican VP hopeful in '76. hide caption

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I couldn't resist. "Buckshot" Hoffner was an unsuccessful Democratic candidate for Congress in North Dakota in 1966. hide caption

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If Henry Davis somehow became part of the Democratic ticket in 2008, he would be 184 years old. hide caption

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The jokes were funny, for about a day or so. The references to Aaron Burr (the last vice president to shoot someone), the allusions to Dan "Quail," the too-good-to-be-true opportunities for the likes of Jon Stewart and Co. Even White House spokesman Scott McClellan was making jokes. Then came the news of Harry Whittington's heart attack, and somehow nothing seemed that funny anymore.

Then there was the hubbub over how long it took for the information to reach the White House and the public. The incident, not that anyone doesn't know by now, was that while on a quail hunting trip in Texas last weekend, Vice President Cheney accidentally "peppered" fellow hunter Whittington with birdshot. The resulting question was why did it take 14-18 hours for President Bush to be informed of the incident? Somehow, the memory of Chappaquiddick came roaring back. Chappaquiddick was the locale where an automobile accident off Martha's Vineyard claimed the life of Mary Jo Kopechne. But it wasn't just a tragic death; the driver of the car, Sen. Edward Kennedy, compounded the problem by failing to report the accident until the following morning — a lapse that continues to haunt Kennedy to this day. Doesn't Cheney, the second most powerful person in the government, feel he owes an explanation over what happened?

Yes and no. Four days into the story, the vice president decided not to hold a press conference but to speak instead to Fox News, in a move some saw as leaving one secure bunker for another. In fairness (and balance) to Fox, the interviewer, Brit Hume, is a pro, and he asked the right kind of questions. For some, this was end-of-story. For others, several of Cheney's answers remain intriguing. He said he had no regrets about how he handled the reporting of the incident (or the delay in making his case in an interview) — though the time lapse made McClellan and the White House appear embarrassingly uninformed. Cheney made a point of taking responsibility for what happened at the Texas ranch. But by waiting four days to come forward, he let go unchallenged a comment by one of the people in the hunting party — that the 78-year-old Whittington, a longtime Texas Republican bigwig and Bush ally, was the one at fault.

But forget the timeline, forget about whether it was 14 hours or 18 hours or four days. The issue, in the eyes of Democrats and many in the media (I know, they are one and the same), is Dick Cheney's modus operandi of not feeling any need to explain his actions to or make himself accountable to the American people. It would be one thing if he was a typical vice president from the old days — put on the ticket solely for geographic or political reasons, with no responsibilities whatsoever, other than to inquire about the president's health. On the contrary, Cheney is the most influential and powerful vice president in history: an architect of the decision to go to war against Iraq, of the nation's energy policy, of its campaign against terrorism. And in conducting said policies, he has been a figure operating in the shadows. No vice president in the modern age has ever conducted so much of his business in secret.

Interestingly, he is not only the most influential and the most powerful vice president; he is among the most unpopular as well. Polls consistently show him with favorable ratings in the 20s or so. There is no indication that has ever bothered him. After all, it's not as if it hurts an upcoming bid for the White House. Cheney was never looking at this job as a springboard to the presidency.

So even if there is no risk to a Cheney-for-President campaign, what happened this week has become symptomatic of Cheney's habit of avoiding public scrutiny. Hopefully, the wounds suffered by Harry Whittington will heal. It's unlikely the public perception of the vice president will undergo any similar healing.

Anyway, very few questions to the Junkie mailbag thus far about this incident — hey, maybe it's a Beltway obsession after all! But of all the Cheney questions I've been stockpiling over the past year or so, this was my favorite:

Q: Do you see any possibility that Vice President Cheney will be the Republican nominee for president in 2008? — Bobbi Silver, Orlando, Fla. (Similarly, Marc Respass, Boston, Mass.)

A: This question, which arrived back in August, seems unfathomable in February of 2006. But it was pretty far-fetched in '05 as well. True, it is unusual for a sitting vice president to take himself out of the running to succeed his boss. In fact, other than Spiro Agnew, who resigned in the wake of a scandal, and Nelson Rockefeller, who was dumped from the ticket, every Veep going back to John Nance Garner in 1940 has made a bid for the top spot. (Rocky himself ran, three times in fact, but those attempts came before he became Gerald Ford's vice president.)

Repeating from the opening paragraph, what has made Cheney such an influential and powerful vice president is that he never came to the job with any personal agenda. And because his goal, from the moment he became the surprise GOP running mate in 2000, was to advance Bush's candidacy and presidency, there was never the kind of tension that frayed so many relationships between presidents and their vice presidents.

Q: I recall that former Ambassador to Great Britain Anne Armstrong, matriarch of the Armstrong Ranch — where Dick Cheney had his hunting accident — was mentioned as a possible vice-presidential running mate for Gerald Ford in 1976. How serious was that talk? — David Kuhn, Rockville, Md.

A: I don't know if "serious" is the right word, but she certainly was prominent among those on the list of potential Ford running mates. Some of Ford's advisers liked the idea of having a Southerner on the ticket to offset the vote-getting strength of Democratic presidential nominee Jimmy Carter. But this was in the pre-Geraldine Ferraro days, where "gender gap" sounded more like a yuppie clothing store and less like a political expression. Ultimately, Ford settled on Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas — hoping that the conservative Dole could keep disappointed supporters of Ronald Reagan (whom Ford beat for the nomination) from staying home in November.

The verdict at the time was that Dole was a disastrous choice. But given all that Ford was up against — Watergate, the pardon, the economy, the anti-Republican mood — it's incredible that he lost to Carter by just a couple of percentage points.

Fun footnote: a Gallup Poll question at the time asked, "Which of the following men would you like to see as Ford's running mate," and the list included Armstrong.

Q: I'm a big fan of senators Joseph Lieberman (D-CT) and John McCain (R-AZ), and I've noticed that they often seem to work together on legislation. I think they would make a great ticket for the 2008 presidential election. Has there ever been a mixed-party presidential ticket? — Kristin Williams, Walla Walla, Wash.

A: Yes, and one was elected. At the 1864 Republican convention, with the nation torn by civil war, President Abraham Lincoln selected Andrew Johnson, a Tennessee Democrat, as his running mate. Lincoln was thought to be in trouble in his bid for a second term, and picking a War Democrat like Johnson would help his chances, which it did. In addition, an independent ticket for president in 1980 consisted of John Anderson, a liberal Republican congressman from Illinois, and Pat Lucey, the former Democratic governor of Wisconsin.

As for a Lieberman-McCain ticket: Well, if it were to happen, it would be McCain-Lieberman, not Lieberman-McCain. John McCain is not about to be anyone's vice president; he turned down George W. Bush (R) in 2000 and John Kerry (D) in 2004. And Lieberman, the Democratic nominee for VP in 2000, is not about to seek that post again (though I suspect that after a failed bid for the Democratic nomination in 2004, his national aspirations are over).

OK, I'm analyzing this to death. It's simply not going to happen. McCain indeed does get along with many Democrats. And a recent poll in Connecticut shows Lieberman, who is up for a fourth term this year, doing better among Republican than with Democrats (obviously because of his pro-war position). But they're not going to run for president with each other.

Q: I recently read that Alton Parker's vice-presidential running mate in 1904, Henry G. Davis, was 81 years old. (Not a good bet to provide a vigorous presidency if something happened to Parker!) Was Davis the oldest vice presidential nominee? — Arthur Kallen, Arlington, Va.

A: Davis was not nearly as old as you state. He was only 80; he didn't turn 81 until a week or so after the election. But yes, he was the oldest candidate ever placed on a major-party ticket. A former senator from West Virginia, Davis was extremely wealthy, and one of the reasons Democrats picked him (perhaps the only reason) was that they hoped he would spend freely out of his own pocket on behalf of the ticket. This was just one of the many strange reasons how and why some running mates were selected. (My favorite: Barry Goldwater saying he chose Rep. William Miller in 1964 because "he drove LBJ nuts.")

Q: Regarding House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi's anger towards Rep. Ed Towns (D-NY) and suggestions of retribution, has Pelosi ever thought that her actions could lead to Towns switching parties? I think he would have a reasonable chance of winning the district running as a Republican. — Ronald May, Jerusalem, Israel

A: You or I would have as good a shot at winning Brooklyn's 10th Congressional District as Towns would as a Republican. The 10th District is dominated by the poor and high-crime areas of Bedford-Stuyvesant and East New York. While there are pockets of conservative support — notably in the Orthodox Jewish area of Williamsburg — this is plain and simple an overwhelmingly, overwhelmingly black Democratic district. In 2004 the GOP candidate received 7.5 percent of the vote; in 2000 it was 5 percent. There was no Republican nominee in 2002. Nobody — not Ed Towns, not Bill Clinton, not Rosa Parks — could win here as a Republican.

The root of this animosity is Towns' vote last July in favor of CAFTA, the Central American Free Trade Agreement. Strongly opposed by organized labor, it passed the House by the razor-thin margin of 217-215. Fifteen Democrats, including Towns, voted for it. For his apostasy, Towns, an African-American lawmaker in his 12th term, has been threatened with the loss of his seat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Needless to say, members of the Congressional Black Caucus are livid over Pelosi singling out Towns, noting that freshman Rep. Melissa Bean (D-IL), who is white, also voted for CAFTA but has not been subjected to any threats from the leadership. Towns also missed a key vote on a crucial budget bill that Republicans also pushed through by a two-vote margin. He may now face a serious challenge in the Sept. 12 primary.

MCCARTHYISM: Kayne Doumani's question in the Feb. 3rd column asked of the whereabouts of Tierney McCarthy, the adopted daughter of the late Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-WI). Both Brian Schallhorn of Ellicott City, Md., and John Gizzi of Washington, D.C., were extremely helpful in tracking her down. I have contacted her and will let you know if she has any interest in furthering a discussion about her life. Gizzi, by the way, writes, "I have a feeling that the adoption of Tierney as a means of encouraging Joe McCarthy to stop drinking [as suggested in Kayne Doumani's note] is in part fable. Both McCarthy and his wife Jean very much wanted to have children and were thrilled when Tierney came home with them."

This Day in Campaign History: California GOP chairman Casper Weinberger warns delegates at the state Republican convention against electing members of the John Birch Society to party posts (Feb. 16, 1963).

Got a question? Ask Ken Rudin: politicaljunkie@npr.org